Italian white wines come in a huge range of styles, offering food lovers lots of potential for delicious pairings. Fiona Beckett travels from north to south in the country, seeking out the most food-friendly regional wines and suggesting dishes to match them…
It’s impossible to think of Italian wine outside the context of food; certainly in the minds of many Italians (unless they’re exceptionally well travelled) it’s impossible to even think outside their regional dishes. And why should they, with the abundance of local vineyards and native grape varieties? The fact that food and wine have grown up side by side makes the combination as natural as breathing. That said, things have changed – particularly in areas such as Tuscany and Sicily. Wines from these regions now reflect more cosmopolitan influences, as international varieties have taken root and given a new, more polished take on indigenous grapes.
Scroll down for Fiona Beckett’s best Italian white wines with food
Regional differences have also been eroded to some extent by techniques such as skin contact – just as they were decades ago by the advent of stainless steel and the adoption of new oak for ageing. But if these wine making trends give new life to disregarded grapes such as Trebbiano (of which there are now some spectacular examples) it’s hard to argue that’s a bad thing. There’s so much value to be had among Italian whites too – often the more modest the better. Grapes such as Verdicchio, Vernaccia and Vermentino are a welcome sight on a wine list: fairly priced, modest in alcohol and – despite their apparent neutrality, which tends to make them unremarkable in a tasting line-up – wonderfully versatile with food.
Italians, especially in regions such as Piedmont and Tuscany, tend to treat whites as a warm-up for the main act, which is almost always a prestigious red. But I hope to convince you that the whites deserve a starring role on their own account. And not just to go with Italian food.
Piedmont has always been regarded as the gastronomic heart of Italy, with wines to match – though the highest accolades tend to be reserved for the reds.
Coming from the home of creamy risottos and decadently rich tajarin pasta (which can have up to 12 egg yolks in the recipe) and of course the famous white truffles, Piedmont whites need some weight to hold their own. The Aldo Conterno Bussiador Chardonnay, which I had at Margot in London’s Covent Garden recently, absolutely ticked that box.
The most familiar local wine to most wine lovers will be Gavi, Italy’s answer to Chablis – well, inexpensive Chablis at least – a reliable buy from supermarket own-label ranges and a good match for risottos or creamy carbonara. But for a more rewarding experience, focus on the fragrant local Arneis grape, generally found in Roero, which makes both an appealing aperitif and a partner for simply cooked vegetable dishes and salads.
Meanwhile, down in Liguria along the coast, you’ll find Vermentino hitting the spot with the local trofie con pesto (local pasta with basil and Parmesan cheese sauce). You may also be surprised to find some good Rieslings from producers such as GD Vajra and Poderi Colla, both in Langhe, that are perhaps less at home with this rich local cuisine than with Asian-style salads and noodles.
An immensely varied area geographically and culturally, the northeast runs from the flat plains of the Veneto up to the mountains of Alto Adige and Trentino. It includes familiar wine names such as Soave, Pinot Grigio and Lugana, and the less explored Ribolla Gialla and Friulano that you’ll find for just a couple of euros in the bacari (wine bars) of Venice.
These two are a much better bet than Prosecco and go very well with the local seafood. There are two main trends at work in this part of Italy, particularly in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. First is the clean-as-a-whistle modern varietals such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio that work as well with international dishes as the local food. There’s no reason not to pair Pinot Grigio with sushi, for example, or even a chicken noodle salad.
Secondly, the northeast is also the heart of Italy’s natural wine movement, spreading over the border into Slovenia and down the eastern side of the Adriatic. Look out for big-name producers such as Gravner and Radikon whose white – or rather orange – wines would work as well with Middle Eastern, North African, Turkish and Georgian food as they do with local Italian dishes like suckling pig.
Tuscany and its reds so dominate central Italy that it’s easy to forget about the region’s whites – as indeed the locals, consciously or otherwise, seem to do. I remember drinking Chianti with every kind of antipasto – including soup – on one visit, as if there wasn’t a white wine within miles. In fact there are plenty. Top Tuscan winemakers often make a flagship international-style white (usually from Chardonnay or Vermentino), while the versatile Vernaccia di San Gimignano or Verdicchio from the Marche offer some of the best value white wines around.
Although Tuscany has a coast, both it and inland Umbria are more about country fare. Think simple soups, pastas and grills cooked over an open fire. Rabbit is a typical ingredient that lends itself just as well to a white wine as a red – as would a classic ragù bolognese into which Italians would be likely to pour some white wine anyway.
In and around Rome too (Lazio) there’s plenty of white wine-friendly food. Crispy deep-fried artichokes are much better with a fresh white such as Grechetto – a variety of Greek origin that you find in both Umbria and Lazio – than with a red, as is vignole, the classic and delicious spring vegetable stew.
You might think the South of Italy would be an area dominated by red wine, but its component regions – Basilicata, Campania, Calabria and Puglia – also produce characterful, and in some cases ambitiously priced, whites. Two of these, Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino, have their own appellations. Along with Falanghina, these are wines to look out for.
It’s partly modern temperature-controlled winemaking equipment that has enabled these fresh, high-acid wines to be produced, but many vineyards are also situated on higher elevations and subject to a cooling maritime influence.
The flavours of the local southern Italian food are bold and bright, but there’s a spicy edge to Calabrian cooking in particular, thanks to the local chillies (peperoncini) and the widely used n’duja (spicy sausage) that often makes a white more refreshing than a red. That suggests you could take these wines into other cuisines with a touch of spice – if Italian n’duja why not Spanish chorizo?
The availability of seafood in this part of Italy goes without saying: southern whites are a natural match with swordfish, tuna and anchovies, and although the locals might go for a red with their pizza Napoletana, a crisp local white works just as well.
Sicily & Sardinia
Italy boasts two large and distinct islands: the Vermentino-dominated Sardinia, which is almost a one-trick pony, and Sicily with its hugely varied terrains and grape varieties – almost a wine-producing country in itself.
The big players on Sicily, like Donnafugata, Planeta and Tasca d’Almerita, operate in all parts of the island. Varieties to seek out are Grillo, which generally makes generous whites not dissimilar to Spain’s Godello, as well as the widely planted Cataratto and fine-boned, mineral Carricante, which is found on the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna (it’s the wine I’d choose with cuscus di pesce).
As you’d expect, the wines of both islands work well with seafood – you could happily eat nothing else in Sardinia. Sicily’s generous Chardonnays and white blends such as Tasca d’Almerita’s engaging Leone d’Almerita (a blend of Catarratto, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon and Gewürztraminer) pair easily with the local swordfish or with non-indigenous scallops and salmon, though they also work well with more Asian-inflected chicken or pork dishes. There’s plenty of Sauvignon and Riesling here too – in fact Sicily, although it accounts for less of the country’s wine production than it once did, is Italy in microcosm.